THH Episode 47: “The Dutiful Dozen”: The South Bend Blue Sox and Women’s Professional Baseball

Transcript and Show Notes for “‘The Dutiful Dozen’: The South Bend Blue Sox and Women’s Professional Baseball”

Written by Casey Pfeiffer and Michella Marino. Produced by Jill Weiss Simins.

[Crowd noise and cheering at a baseball game]

Justin Clark [using old time radio voice and effects]: And we’re all tied up here at 1 a piece as we head to the bottom of the 10th. The Blue Sox need to put one across to keep their championship hopes alive. . . And we’ve got something cooking here. . . Runners on the corners now with two out. Can they do it again folks? Westerman up at the plate with a chance to win it. And there’s a liner smashed to the right side and it’s through! Ladies and gentlemen, as they’ve proven time and again, don’t count these Sox out yet! We’ve got ourselves a tied series, and we’ll see you tomorrow for the championship!

[Audio clip of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”]

Clark: For fans cheering at the ballpark on September 10, 1952, few could have anticipated that their team would again have a chance to bring a championship title home to the city. The season had started off bright and expectations were high, but the ballclub had all but limped to the finish line. Injuries, costly managerial decisions, and discord between the players and leadership contributed to their drop in the standings. When six members walked off the team in late August and early September in a player strike just days before the end of the regular season, the club’s chances at clinching a consecutive playoff championship seemed bleak. After all, they’d lost a third of their roster and were reduced to just twelve players – a dutiful dozen. Giving up would have been easy. But as we all know…

[Audio clip from A League of Their Own, Tom Hanks]: “There’s no crying in baseball.”

The women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League were accustomed to adversity and relished the opportunity to compete at the same level as male professional baseball players. Showcasing their determination, grit, and innate athletic skill, the South Bend Blue Sox were prepared to leave it all on the field again for a chance at the 1952 title.

I’m Justin Clark, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Though it would be twenty years until the passage of Title IX in 1972, which prohibits discrimination “on the basis of sex” in federally funded educational or athletic programs, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, or AAGPBL, set an early precedent for women in professional sports. The League showed that when they had the opportunity, female athletes could be as competitive and entertaining as men. Yet, it also underscored that societal expectations of femininity were – and continue to be – imposed on female athletes. The South Bend Blue Sox and other teams of the League serve as an example of women succeeding in fields dominated by men, while reminding us of the work still needed today to help achieve greater gender equality in sports.

[Audio clip of the AAGPBL “Victory Song”]

Clark: Many of us are familiar with the quote, “There’s no crying in baseball,” from the popular movie A League of Their Own. The 1992 film put the AAGPBL back in the public eye, four decades after its founding. While the movie highlighted the history of the League (with some Hollywood liberties, of course), it’s important to note that though it was among the first, if not the first, organized professional women’s league to play baseball, women have been playing the sport since at least the 1860s.

Baseball, since its early roots in America in the mid-18th century, has been considered a man’s sport by most.  After developing into a professional game in the 19th century, it was dubbed too strenuous for women—the long base paths, heavy bat, overhand pitching, etc. etc. So women who played in the late 19th and early 20th century faced social criticism for their foray into this masculine domain.  Despite this, women continued playing on barnstorming teams and at women’s colleges on the east coast in the post-Civil War era through the turn of the 20th century but not in particularly high numbers, at least officially.

In the 1880s in urban areas, the game of baseball was modified to accommodate smaller spaces such as indoor gyms and city playgrounds, which led to the development of softball.  As softball evolved by the turn of the century, women were pushed into this sport and away from baseball.  Softball grew dramatically through recreational and industrial leagues during the Great Depression, and although generally acceptable for women in the pre-WWII era, female players were often deemed masculine.  Time Magazine described female softballers as “cavorting U.S. tomboys…girls [who] can pitch, bat, field grounders, otherwise perform like a reasonable facsimile of the male.” This widespread popularity of softball set the stage for a ready-made pool of athletes for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.  These women knew how to play, and they were good. Very good.

[Audio clip of “Baseball Boogie”]

Clark: America began contributing towards the WWII effort and then officially joined the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Radio clip: “Millions of women who have never before been employed in industry are now enlisted in the nation’s labor forces. They are stepping in wherever they are needed to do a man’s job.”

Clark: More women entered the workforce, finding new employment opportunities in jobs traditionally held by men, who had taken up arms to fight.  This included professional baseball.

[Audio clip of “Baseball Boogie”]

Clark: Baseball was America’s national pastime and provided release from the stressors of the depression and war years. As the American economy shifted to wartime production in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, industrial recreation gained even greater importance for war workers and spectators who wanted to enjoy wholesome entertainment.

Radio clip: “See baseball is back again.  All of Washington is out, including the President of the United States.”

Clark: In January 1942, President Roosevelt stated,

Clark [using Roosevelt voice]: “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. . . everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. . . they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work. . .”

Clark: Nevertheless, there were still concerns that a manpower shortage could affect professional baseball in the spring of 1943 and leave ballparks empty. Not willing to wait around and see what happened, Philip K. Wrigley, chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs, stepped up to the plate.

He decided that professional women’s softball was the answer. When it became clear, though, that men’s professional baseball would not be curtailed by a manpower shortage, instead of abandoning his idea of women’s professional softball, Wrigley shifted gears slightly. According to historian Merrie Fidler,

Casey Pfeiffer: Wrigley “fashioned the league’s objectives to compliment the war effort in the mid-sized industrial communities that supported its teams.”

Clark: Wrigley founded the All-American Girls Softball League as a non-profit organization. He explored potential host cities ranging from Detroit to Cincinnati to Gary, but the final cities selected to host League teams were South Bend, Indiana; Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Rockford, Illinois. These cities had been hotbeds for women’s softball since the 1930s, were mid-sized war production cities, and were conveniently located within a 100-mile radius of Wrigley’s base of operations in Chicago.

Radio Ad: for Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum: “Hi ho, hey, hey.  Chew Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum!”

Clark: Wrigley offered a previously unimaginable opportunity: a chance for female athletes to play professional ball.

He used his already established scouting network to recruit the very best players from across the US and Canada, eventually even recruiting Latin American players. The League held final try-outs in Chicago and then distributed players to each of the four new teams. The original South Bend team included women hailing from the state of Florida to the city of Chicago to the province of Saskatchewan, and a little bit of everywhere in between.

Furthermore, this was a paid opportunity, and the League paid well—salaries started at $45/week, which according to contemporary newspapers was “more than the average stenographer or factory girl gets, and far above the average Class D minor leaguer” and ranged up to $85/week, which was on par with “players in the top minor leagues.”  And to drum up further publicity, the League hired former male major league stars as team managers.

At the League’s onset, the women played a hybrid game that fell somewhere between softball and baseball. The game continued to evolve throughout the League’s 12-year history, eventually becoming baseball.

Radio clip: “Like many another sport, baseball has made way for the ladies. They train like men for professional games that draw a million paid admissions every year.  From coast to coast and even from Canada and Cuba comes the cry, ‘Slide, baby, slide!’”

Clark: Early on, the women used the underhand pitch and a typical softball but batted with Louisville Slugger baseball bats. Each team played with nine players, allowed lead offs and steals, and lengthened the base paths and pitching distance. By 1948, overhand pitching was implemented and in the final season a regulation size baseball.  The League constantly evolved in its name and structure. In later years, it has been labeled, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Here we will just say the League to avoid confusion.

Wrigley was of the mind that for society to fully accept women’s professional baseball and to shed stereotypes of women softball players, he would have to highlight the players’ femininity.  The women would be promoted as “All-American girls.” Indeed, one United Press article described the new league as “beauty at the bat, pulchritude on the pitcher’s mound, and glamour in the gardens when the nation’s first professional girls’ softball league opens its initial season.” As Fidler explains,

Pfeiffer: “Wrigley attempted to achieve this goal by soliciting the design of a special ‘feminine’ uniform, by employing team chaperones, by establishing player conduct rules similar to those in vogue for women on college campuses, and by educating players in the finer points of ‘feminine’ charm.”

Radio clip: “But you don’t need to go to college to learn that!”

Clark: This meant in the early years that players attended charm school and were required to abide by such League rules as “Always appear in feminine attire when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball,” “Boyish bobs are not permissible,” and “Lipstick should always be on.”

Radio clip: “Lipstick is your exclamation point. Be sure that your lipstick harmonizes with your rouge and your nail polish, and check with any reds in your costume to see that everything is in key…Be sure you put your best face forward!

Clark: These rules of conduct were established as a form of what sociologist Jan Felshin has dubbed “Apologetic behavior.”  This is a term used frequently when discussing women’s sport in the 20th century and describes the compensatory behavior required of women when they engage in a social transgression, i.e. since women were engaging in the traditionally masculine sport of baseball, they must apologize or compensate for this by emphasizing their femininity.

Radio clip: “Jean bunts it.  The squeeze is on!  Tiby Eisen slides home with a run and a nicely bruised leg. Better a bruise than long pants, eh, gals?”

Clark: They did this through their skirted uniforms, the strict codes of conduct, and highlighting their traditional feminine accomplishments such as reading, horseback riding, and scrapbooking.  Mina Costin, a staff writer for the South Bend Tribune, described the new professional players as such:

Michella Marino [with old time radio effects]: “Time was when girl softball players were thought of as brawny, tough-looking and acting babes who couldn’t do anything but heave a ball and swing a bat.  But the members of South Bend’s new girls team are ladies, in appearance and character, without exception.”

Clark: She followed with a detailed description of the new star pitcher, Margaret (Sunny) Berger:

Marino [with old time radio effects]: “Sunny is a small, sun-tanned, blue-eyed blond, who looks like a college co-ed.”

Justin Clark: After describing Berger’s collegiate background and hobbies, which of course included her devotion to the Red Cross, Costin concluded the article with the following:

Marino [with old time radio effects]: “There you have Miss America, 1943. No, she’s not a bathing beauty—she’s a softball player, and a darn good one, too.”

Clark: Although men’s baseball integrated in 1947, the League never did.  Despite several Black female players trying out for the South Bend team in the early 1950s, sources suggest that Black women baseballers did not fit within the “All-American” standards set by the League, and none were ever officially on a team roster.  Wrigley emphasized white middle-class femininity and indeed embedded it into every aspect of his organization.  It was couched in language surrounding respectability, but race and sexuality certainly played into it.  In this instance, respectability meant white and heterosexual.

Historically, while much has been made of this emphasis on the player’s femininity, what is less often covered is their stellar athleticism, so let’s jump into our team at hand here, the South Bend Blue Sox, and their long road to back-to-back championships.

Radio clip: “Okay, gals. Play ball!”

Clark: In the spring of 1943, South Bend, with a population just over 100,000, was booming with its $13 million in defense contracts, shedding any last vestiges of the depression-era.  Corporations like Studebaker, a local automaker, and Bendix Aviation, had shifted production to meet wartime needs.  When the 15 new professional ball players assigned to the Blue Sox team stepped off the South Shore El from Chicago [train noise and horn] into their new host city, they were greeted by South Bend mayor Jesse Pavey and other local civic leaders.  The city was glad to have them [clapping], and the women were thrilled to be there.

The Fort Wayne Daisies –the only other team from the Hoosier state –joined the League in 1945.

Radio clip: “Two teams are working out—the Fort Wayne Daisies and the Racine Belles…”

Clark: While the AAGPBL was founded, in part, in response to the Second World War, the League peaked in the postwar period and remained in operation until after the 1954 season, because of its roots within host cities such as South Bend and Fort Wayne.

Community support for the League and their new team remained strong in South Bend. Local industrial, business, civic, and fraternal organization leaders expressed interest in supporting the team and contributed financially as guarantors to ensure the team’s stability and success for over a decade.

The South Bend Blue Sox began their tenure at Bendix Field, but relocated to the stadium at Playland Park for the 1946 season. Playland was centrally located, offered more seating, including a section of 2600 covered seats, and a brand new lighting system. Attendance dramatically increased over the next couple of seasons.

[Journalists reporting in background and photo bulbs going off]

Local newspaper coverage, or the lack thereof, could make or break a team, but the South Bend Tribune certainly aided the Blue Sox. [Journalism/newsroom noise] The Tribune reported on all their home and away games and provided box scores for the “Girls Pro League” just as they did with men’s professional baseball. This positive, regular coverage spurred attendance and helped develop a loyal following among residents.

Despite several solid seasons of play and a tie for the pennant in 1949, league and playoff championships continued to elude the Blue Sox. That all changed in 1951. Led by all-star pitcher Jean Faut and a strong veteran core, the team knew they had the talent to go the distance, and they set to work proving it.

[Crowd yelling “Yay!”]

The Sox had a good start but finished in third in the first part of the season; they went on a tear in the second half. In late July, the team won an impressive eleven games in a row, including a perfect game by Faut, the first of two she threw in her remarkable career. To date, there have been a total of 23 perfect games in Major League Baseball history. No pitcher in the league has ever thrown more than one. Paul Neville of the South Bend Tribune reported on Faut’s 1951 gem in the July 22nd issue of the paper, praising her as “a sturdy gal with a lot of heart, a fast ball that hops, and a curve that breaks off like a country road.” In August, the Blue Sox outdid themselves, winning sixteen in a row. The consistent, “sizzling” play by all members of the team propelled them to the top of the standings and saw them clinch their first outright league championship in nine seasons.

South Bend defeated Fort Wayne in the first round of the ’51 playoffs but fell two games behind to the Rockford Peaches in the title series. According to the South Bend Tribune,

Clark [using old time radio voice and effects]: “It looked like a hopeless proposition, trying to win three straight from Rockford, which was on a nine-game victory streak of its own.”

Clark: Needing a win, they handed the ball to their ace.

Clark [using old time radio voice and effects]: “It’s an old story with the South Bend Blue Sox but they’re counting on Jean Faut to pull them out of another jam at Playland Park.”

Clark: Faut and the team battled back, as they so often did, coming from behind in each of the last three games to win their first playoff championship. It was a long-time coming and the city was thrilled:

Clark [using old time radio voice and effects]: “The 1951 Blue Sox were a team that improved steadily as the season progressed. Their position in the standings at the end of the first half and then their top rung spot after the second half shows that they learned and put their new knowledge into use. They’ve brought great credit upon themselves and South Bend and for that we can only say, ‘Congratulations!’”

Clark: On the surface, South Bend looked primed to compete for the championship title again in 1952. The team boasted a strong roster that played well with each other, but off the field, tensions and outside pressures mounted, threatening to disrupt their work. Contract conflicts became a major point of contention. Several players demanded higher pay to reflect their experience and talent, but the League, already struggling financially, often refused to budge. The frustrations over pay cast a shadow over the season. The Blue Sox also learned they would be without fan-favorite shortstop Senaida “Shoo-Shoo” Wirth for the year when she announced that she was pregnant, another aspect of the AAGPBL that male leagues did not have to contend with.

Added to this, was a complicated set of player and leadership dynamics that the Blue Sox began to confront in 1951 and were exacerbated in the ’52 season. In January 1951, the Sox hired a new manager, former Minor Leaguer Karl Winsch. In addition to his role with the team, Winsch just so happened to be Faut’s husband and the father of their young son. The relationship made things tricky for Faut. Though Winsch reportedly never talked baseball with her at home, teammates were hesitant to confide in her during disputes with him, thus isolating Faut.

Despite these challenges, the Blue Sox started the 1952 season strong; [crowd noise] it looked like it would be a Hoosier battle through and through while they sought to fend off the Fort Wayne Daisies. Faut looked past the strained relationships and her husband’s inability to connect with his players and continued her dominance on the mound. But small fissures pulled at the team’s seams. In early June, Winsch let frustrations get the best of him and benched Charlene “Shorty” Pryer [background booing], the second baseman, and then abruptly suspended first baseman Janet “Pee Wee” Wiley for supporting Pryer and allegedly talking back to him. [crowd noise with spectator yelling, “Oh, come on!”] Winsch himself was suspended later that month when he challenged a call on the field and got into a brawl with the umpire. Some Blue Sox joined the melee, underscoring the physical aspect that was common in both male and female professional leagues. It was another distraction for the team during their close race with Fort Wayne.

Winsch continued to make changes to the lineup as the season progressed, much to the dismay of the team. These were experienced ballplayers who understood the strengths and weaknesses of their roster and weren’t afraid to question his calls. Finally, in late August, tensions erupted. Winsch called on Shorty Pryer to pinch run in the ninth inning of a close game against the Kalamazoo Lassies. Pryer, who had already taken off her spikes, took some time getting out to the base. The delay angered the short-tempered Winsch, who suspended her with just days left in the regular season. Several Blue Sox players appealed to Winsch to reconsider, stating that they needed the leading base-stealer and star-hitter in the lineup. Winsch refused to change his mind and challenged those who questioned him. Siding with their teammate, five additional players walked off the team. It was a devastating blow to a group that had struggled down the stretch and led to a reporter dubbing those remaining “The Dutiful Dozen.” South Bend ended the season in second, losing the league championship to their Hoosier rivals, Fort Wayne.

Reduced to twelve players, few fans gave the Blue Sox any chance at winning it all for a second consecutive year. Still, the team quickly defeated Grand Rapids in the first round and met Rockford again in the championship series. The Blue Sox lost the first two games, but played the latter under protest, arguing that Rockford had shortened the distance to the right field fence below the league requirement. The protest proved to be a crucial point in the series, and the final ruling went in the Blue Sox favor. While clinching a win in game three, South Bend learned that the two teams would replay the previous one, thus evening the series at one a piece. Another Rockford win gave the Peaches the edge. Once again, South Bend found itself in a must-win position. [crowd noise] Winsch decided to save Faut for the deciding game and went with Janet Rumsey on the mound against Rockford’s ace Rose Gacioch, already a two-time All-Star by this point. It was a nail-biter that saw the determined Blue Sox prevail 2-1 in ten innings. The South Bend Tribune reported:

Clark [using old time radio voice and effects]: “Out-hit, out-fielded, out-pitched, but never out-fought. That’s the Blue Sox story as the defending American Girls Baseball league champions trek off to Freeport, Illinois today for the final game of 1952.”

Clark: The Blue Sox handed the ball to Faut and let her work her magic. [crowd cheers] With a 20-2 record on the regular season and a stunning .93 ERA, she again demonstrated that she was among the best to ever play in the League. [bat hitting ball and crowd cheering] The Sox gave her an early lead with a run in the first, but it was a three-run third that helped tip the odds in the Blue Sox favor for the first time in weeks. Faut, a former batting champion, assisted not only on the mound, but at the plate too – belting out two triples, tallying two RBIs, and scoring a run herself after stealing home. [crowd cheers] Down 6-1 in the ninth inning, Rockford made one last push and rallied for a couple runs before Faut notched the last out. [crowd cheers] With the 6-3 win, the Blue Sox unexpectedly brought another championship title home to South Bend and showed the country that women possessed the same drive to compete and succeed as men in the pro leagues.

Clark [using old time radio voice and effects]: “Today the Blue Sox again reign as league champions. There is no attempt here to say that this South Bend team of a dozen players is the best in the league, or that girls’ baseball is the world’s greatest sport. But there is space here for a tribute to Winsch and his girls, who won the league playoffs on just one basis alone – determination, the will to win. These are but the trite phrases of athletic banquet speakers, but nonetheless apt and fitting in describing the success story of the Blue Sox.”

[Audio Clip of AAGBPL “Victory Song”]

Clark: Within the long history of women’s sports, there is also a long history of society demanding apologetic behavior. Women athletes have consistently done whatever it takes to compete—whether that’s playing baseball in a skirt with lipstick on or participating in a beauty contest at half-time of a basketball game. They’ve had to engage in this behavior—willingly or not—because American society has deemed femininity and athleticism at odds. Female athletes, amateur or professional, have had to constantly negotiate these components of their identities to make the case that they too deserve an equal chance to play. Because sports like baseball have been part of the masculine realm, men never have to justify their masculinity in the same way.

Gains for women have been made since the AAGPBL players’ time, particularly with the passing of Title IX in 1972 and the subsequent boom in women’s sports at the high school and collegiate levels, but sporting equality continues to evade women athletes. Professional women athletes are not paid anywhere near equal to male professional athletes, they do not get the same media coverage or endorsement deals, and as the most recent NCAA March Madness basketball tournament highlighted, access to facilities and equipment remain vastly inequitable. Despite this, women athletes continue to achieve greatness and sometimes even perfection.  Just as Faut excelled at the mound with her two perfect games for the South Bend Blue Sox, Hope Trautwein, a pitcher for the softball team from North Texas University, pitched the first-ever truly perfect game in NCAA D-1 history in April 2021, striking out every single batter that stepped to the plate over the course of seven innings. Just as in 1952, women athletes come to play. They continue to fight for the right that one day it’ll be on a level-playing field.

Once again, I’m Justin Clark, and this has been Talking Hoosier History.

Talking Hoosier History is a production of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. To view the historical sources, a full transcript, and links to the articles mentioned in this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Casey Pfeiffer and IHB Deputy Director Dr. Michella Marino. Production and sound engineering by IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins. Quotations for this episode were read by Casey Pfeiffer, Michella Marino, and [old time radio voice] yours truly.

We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

[Blooper take ending: To the Blue So– . . . [jumbles words] . . . to the Blue Sox team. That’s hard to say!]

Show Notes

Books

Jim Sargent and Robert M. Gorman, The South Bend Blue Sox: A History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Team and Its Players, 1943-1954, Forewords by Betsy Jochum, Sue Kidd, and Jean Faut, Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012.

Merrie A. Fidler, The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, Foreword by Jean Cione, Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.

W.C. Madden, The Dutiful Dozen, Noblesville, IN:  Madden Publishing Co. Inc., 1997.

Newspapers

Cindy Boren, “North Texas pitcher throws a perfect game with a twist, striking out all 21 batters,” The Washington Post, April 12, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2021/04/12/hope-trautwein-perfect-game/

“Faut to Hurl in Final Tilt at Freeport,” South Bend Tribune, September 11, 1952, Accessed via Newspapers.com.

“Girl Softballers Hope to Develop Major League,” Associated Press, Ludington Daily News, June 9, 1943, Accessed via Newspapers.com.

“Girl Softball Players Stir Fans’ Interest,” United Press, South Bend Tribune, May 28, 1943, Accessed via Newspapers.com.

Joe Doyle, “According to Joe Doyle,” South Bend Tribune, September 12, 1952, Accessed via Newspapers.com.

Mina Costin, “Boys Have Gone to War; Now It’s the All-American Girl,” South Bend Tribune, May 27, 1943.

Paul Neville, “Sox Subdue Rockford Nine by 2-0 Score,” South Bend Tribune, July 22, 1951, Accessed via Newspapers.com.

Paul Neville, “On the Level,” South Bend Tribune, September 14, 1951, Accessed via Newspapers.com.

“Same Old Story! Jean Faut to Hurl Crucial Game for South Bend Sox,” South Bend Tribune, September 11, 1951, Accessed via Newspapers.com.

Online

Becky Sullivan, “Under Fire, The NCAA Apologizes And Unveils New Weight Room for Women’s Tournament,” NPR, March 20, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/03/20/979596524/under-fire-the-ncaa-apologizes-and-unveils-new-weight-room-for-womens-tournament

Chad Campbell and James Doubek, “Pitcher Hope Trautwein Throws a Perfect Game of All Strikeouts, NPR, April 13, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/04/13/986724329/pitcher-hope-trautwein-throws-a-perfect-game-of-all-strikeouts

Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Hon. Kenesaw M. Landis, January 15, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/spring/greenlight.html.

Gerald Balzer and Steven Culbertson, “When FDR Said ‘Play Ball’: President Called Baseball a Wartime Morale Booster, Prologue Magazine, Spring 2002,  https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/spring/greenlight.html.

“Ladies of the Little Diamond, TIME Magazine, June 14, 1943, Vol. 41, Issue 24, pg. 73-74, Accessed via Inspire Database.

“Rules of Conduct,” https://www.aagpbl.org/history/rules-of-conduct.

Music Credits

Former State Legislators Agree: Politics Has Changed

Indiana General Assembly, no date, courtesy of the Indiana State Library.

For many former Indiana lawmakers, the legislative and technological world feels quite different from the one in which they began their political careers. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that statistically the U.S. is the only democratic nation in the world where social trust has seen a major decline, suggesting political polarization is the major driving force.[1] Luckily, history provides us with perspective in these contentious times, reminding us of an age when things were once different and that there is always hope for change.

According to former legislators of the Indiana General Assembly (IGA), politicians have generally collaborated well and operated in an atmosphere where, despite political disagreements, most worked congenially across party lines. This is not to say that political polarization is as tense as it appears at the federal level, but Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI) interviews indicate that bipartisanship is harder in Indiana than it once was. As ILOHI’s oral historian, I found myself hearing over and over again from legislators who began their careers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that state politics have changed, that the current political climate is less collegial. This belief was echoed by former legislators of both major political parties.

Rep. Choice Edwards (R), “History of the IBLC,” accessed indianahousedemocrats.org.

When asking former Republican legislators about their impressions of bipartisan cooperation during their service compared to today, I was given the following responses. Former Republican Rep. Ned Lamkin, who served in the House of Representatives from 1967 to 1982 and was crucial in creating Unigov legislation (which merged Marion County and the City of Indianapolis), stated: “ bipartisan groups would go to lunch together every day . . . so we had really good . . . collegial relationships with one another unlike it is today . . . we really did say ‘only 10% of this is political.’” Lamkin’s African American colleague, Representative Choice Edwards, served during the 1969 session and helped pass Unigov into law. In an ILOHI interview, Edwards recounted his experience in the IGA, saying “So it went from very serious kinds of things to jovial . . . you know I believe to quote the philosopher Mencius if you ain’t laughing you ain’t living. So, I believe in . . . trying to ease tensions with laughter.”

Edwards’ predecessor, Republican Van Smith, who served in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1961 and was chairman of former Vice President Mike Pence’s successful 2012 gubernatorial campaign, echoed these same thoughts. He reflected:

There’s not deep bipartisan political respect that there once was. I don’t know I would have as much enjoyment in the legislature as I had before. I don’t know if I would have as much fun running for public office as I had before. There is this tendency to really build extreme vitriol positions against personalities, rather than have a good discussion of issues. It saddens me, because it’s a magnification in both parties, it’s a magnification of the bitterness, the attractiveness of being bitter. . . I am a staunch Christian and it just ain’t good.

Rep. Charlie Brown (left), accessed NWI Times.

Former Democratic legislators, like Rep. Charlie Brown, who served from 1982 to 2018, too observed increasing political polarization. Brown contended:

It’s just over the last six years, that what you see at the federal level was at the local level here. It used to be that we’d fuss and fight on the floor or in committee, but then go out and have a drink or have dinner together. That changed drastically over the last six or eight years. It was a total separation and isolation of the parties as it is at the federal level. I don’t know what brought that on. We just do not have that camaraderie any longer.

Democrat Lindel Hume, who served in the House of Representatives from 1974 to 1982 and the Senate from 1982 to 2014, echoed this, stating

It’s a tale of two legislatures . . . Whether you were Democrat or Republican you had friends on both sides of the aisle and you would kid around together . . . A much better relationship across party lines and one of the reasons I decided to retire from the legislature was that it just wasn’t the same.

African American teacher and Democratic legislator Earline Rogers served in the House from 1983 to 1990 and Senate from 1990 to 2016. She noted that despite differing races or parties, her statehouse colleagues respected and related to one another, adding that the public probably wouldn’t “recognize the camaraderie that’s there.” She also recalled that while caring for loved ones diagnosed with cancer, she and Republican colleague Tom Wyss, “went through something together. . . there’s a bond that political parties just can’t break up.”

The Herald (Jasper, IN), February 23, 1984, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

While the legislators agreed that polarization had intensified, most did not attribute it to a specific source. One major factor exists today that did not in the early careers of former legislators: the internet. The Pew Research Center reported in early 2020 the results of a survey regarding how trustworthy Democrats and Republicans found 30 different news sources. The results found that Democrats trusted 22 of the sources and Republicans distrusted 20 of the sources, showing a deep divide.[2] The Wall Street Journal noted a few months back that mathematicians studying the role of social media in political polarization are seeing a disturbing trend, where social media sites appear designed to highlight the most contentious and extreme political posts.[3]

According to Facing History & Ourselves, online platforms “use algorithms to expose viewers to increasingly extreme content, which can lead them to fringe political views without their realizing it. . . . Spending time in a political echo-chamber can make it easier for negative feelings toward members of the other political party to develop.”[4] Information has become inherently political and it is harder than ever to discuss it, because so many have come to only trust information that fulfills their political biases. As a result, it is like throwing gasoline on a fire by reinforcing the idea that the other “side” is too extreme or untrustworthy to even interact with. In addition to “media bubbles,” Facing History cites “in-group bias,” or tribalism, and changing election policies like campaign finance reform and gerrymandering for increasing political polarization.

Indiana General Assembly, ca. 1948-1953, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The 2021 session indicated that the party divide among Indiana legislators isn’t likely to narrow any time soon, given the recent tension in the Assembly over a proposed bill regarding a South Bend school district. When Democrats belonging to the Black Legislative Caucus expressed concerns that the  bill would lead to racial segregation in South Bend, it was reported that a group of white Republican legislators booed and heckled them.[5] The conflict moved from the House floor to outside the chambers, and there, according to WFYI, a white male lawmaker had a confrontation with a black female legislator.[6] Democrats called for implicit bias training after the incident. While some legislators pushed back against this proposal, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that the conflict exposed serious issues in the IGA.

Perhaps, if there is one thing we can learn from former legislators, it is that things don’t have to be this way, that political echo chambers can be dismantled. The Association of Retired Members of the Indiana General Assembly, a bipartisan group founded in 2016, is hoping to restore civility and bipartisanship among legislators. An Indy Star op-ed noted the group is “joined in fellowship of our common legislative and political experiences as well as our respect for the legislative process.”[7] Every two years, it awards legislators who demonstrate courtesy and respect for other members, are willing to find common ground, demonstrate self-discipline, and appreciate the rights of others. The op-ed’s author stated, and ILOHI interviewees confirmed, “Legislators are human and can be passionate. They can also be civil and work together for the good of our state.”

Sources:

[1] Kevin Vallier, “Why Are Americans So Distrustful of Each Other?,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed WSJ.com.

[2] Mark Jurkowitz, Amy Mitchell, Elisa Shearer and Mason Walker, “U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided,” accessed Pew Research Center.

[3] Christopher Mims, “Why Social Media Is So Good At Polarizing Us,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed Wall Street Journal.

[4] “Explainer: Political Polarization in the United States,” accessed Facing History & Ourselves.

[5] Brandon Smith, “Tensions Flare as Some Republicans Boo, Heckle Black Democrats on House Floor,” WBAA, February 19, 2021, accessed wbaa.org.

[6] Brandon Smith, “‘Nothing Was Normal’ About 2021 Legislative Session Amid COVID-19 Pandemic,” WFYI, April 26, 2021, accessed wfyi.org.

[7] Op-Ed, “Bipartisanship Group of Retired Indiana Lawmakers Encourages Civility,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 2021, accessed IndyStar.com.